The first round of the French presidential election has given the Socialist Party (PS) and the French left as a whole their best results since 1988, with the PS candidate François Hollande winning 28.6 per cent of the vote to President Nicolas Sarkozy's 27.2. A runoff between the two men will he held on May 6. Mr. Hollande's performance, on a platform promising that he would govern from the left and bring about significant change, was broadly expected. Though his winning margin is not as high as the left hoped it would be, it makes Mr. Sarkozy the first incumbent to lose the first round since the Fifth Republic was founded in 1958. He has undoubtedly lost a lot of his earlier appeal for an electorate whose mind is on economic regeneration rather than his flashy, media-directed, self-aggrandising style. As things stand, Mr. Sarkozy could also become the first sitting President to lose office since Valéry Giscard d'Estaing was defeated by François Mitterrand in 1981, unless a right-wing consolidation takes place. The fact is that the first round brought unexpected support for the far-right National Front (FN) leader Marine Le Pen, whose campaign grew progressively more strident and xenophobic and who has even made admiring references to an anti-Semitic French journalist executed after the war for collaborating with the Nazis. Worryingly, the FN won 17.9 per cent of the vote. These voters, should they cast a ballot in the second round, are bound to plump for Mr. Sarkozy.

In his second-round campaigning, Mr. Sarkozy can be expected to intensify his anti-immigrant rhetoric in the hope of ensuring that enough of Ms Le Pen's supporters come out on May 6. But he is likely to pay a corresponding price by losing centre-right support. His rival, on the other hand, will face problems achieving the 50 per cent he will need. The left polled a total of only 44 per cent in the first round, which means Mr. Hollande will have to attract voters either from François Bayrou's centre-right following or rely on the unlikely possibility that Sarkozy supporters will be so alarmed by the National Front's performance that they will defect in large numbers. The coherence and determination shown by the far-left Jean-Luc Mélenchon were the surprise of the campaign, but the 11 per cent he won will not add enough wind to the Socialists' sails. Mr. Hollande's own major promises, such as far greater regulation of finance and a 75 per cent tax on incomes of over a million euros, have considerable resonance. To snatch the presidency from Mr. Sarkozy, however, Mr. Hollande will need a wider range of voter support. This election is still in the balance.

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